Learning to Float

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A friend asked me recently why I write, and I realized I had no idea.  Which is a funny thing to say, when you’ve been teaching writing workshops all over town.

The thing is, why can be such a small question when it bumps up against processes that are messy and close. Why seeks linearity, explanations. When I go to the page, I have no idea how things will go, what actually lurks beneath the scratchy thing that got me there in the first place. Writing is discovery, trash heap, breezy porch, silver thread. Writing is connection.

Which is how I find myself, with 12 other women, on yoga mats in front of the campus vending machines on a Saturday morning.

We are a sea of spandex and tight cotton, warming up our bodies to tap into our creativity for a short unit I’m teaching on Embodied Writing, a practice I’ve developed that combines movement and breath with writing and (optional) sharing.

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“So,” Claudette turns to me brightly, “Are we ready?” Claudette is one of the directors of In Her Presence, a group she co-founded to “help immigrant women grow their collective empowerment.” Each Saturday women gather in groups according to English language level, each in rich conversation on any number of topics: poetry, job applications, health, or U.S. history. I look out at the group.

“This isn’t school,” I say. “You don’t have to worry about grammar or spelling. We’ll give ourselves permission to play with writing, to see where we go.” Someone says the word “permission” in Arabic.  We talk about listening with reverence. A pause – does this word translate? Someone says in French, “Oui, just the same, révérence.”

We have time for one prompt today: I remember. The room goes quiet with the scribbling of pencils, all of us bent over our notebooks, remembering. When it’s time to share, Olivia (names changed), a grandmother from Iraq in a yellow scarf, declares, “Remember? What is this remember! We come here to FORGET.” Celine, from Burundi, is talking about the contents of her fridge while Aya writes about talking to her mother this morning, still in Damascus. We listen and laugh or nod or sometimes weep, each of us moved, each of us recognizing ourselves in each other’s stories.

IMG_2988There is a spark in these moments. Writing becomes a way of making ourselves known to ourselves and each other. We learn to do what we have always done: to be open and listening, to play and be curious, like children.

I have been doing these workshops all over town. At barns in Freeport and Flamenco Studios in Portland, with intellectually disabled adults at art centers, at yurts in Cumberland.

It doesn’t seem to matter who we are or where we come from or how we think or what we believe. The common denominator is our bodies that contain our stories, and the mercy and exultation of creativity and witness.

So perhaps this is why I write, because it is so much like learning to float.

The swimmer discovers her own buoyancy not by curling and compressing – that posture will sink her – but in opening and releasing. In this tenderest place, we float. The water holds us when we trust it at our backs.

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The Foundational Extras


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Recently, a friend asked me if I had any new hobbies. “Hobbies?” I stammered.

“Yes,” he said, “like macrame or jigsaw puzzles or beading. Hobbies.” I was stumped – was he joking? Making funny small talk?

But he was serious – and strategizing. This summer, he explained, he played baseball.  And it was amazing. Every week, he saw friends, got outside, skinned his knees. There was so much good that came from that weekly routine. And with summer over, he was  looking for something to fill the gap. “I’m thinking of taking up sewing,” he said.

Which got me thinking. There are those activities that, from the outside, look like extras. Whether it’s baseball or dance, writing or running, these things might seem superfluous. When we say “hobby,” we’re not usually talking about Something Important. But it is often these activities that are the foundation of our balance. They are competitive or playful or sweat-inducing or relaxing, and they bring us back to simply doing what we’re doing: no long term goal, no need-to-complete, just a bit of ease and focus.

Call them hobbies, or practice, or lifelines, we commit to these activities because it’s time that feeds us. Even when we’re tired. Even when there are other more important things to do. Consider how you feel at the end of the run/massage/writing/bowling game. You might even catch yourself smiling.

In my work as a massage therapist, I get to witness how those clients that have committed to regular massage sessions reap profound benefits simply by showing up, consistently and intentionally.  They’ve found one activity in which practice helps them feel balance. But there are so many different kinds of hobby commitment.

You may have noticed this too: During the busiest times, we drop the “extras.”  When it doesn’t feel like there’s enough to go around, and it’s more important to get the [thing designated important] done, we simply don’t show up.  We skip class or practice or don’t make time. And in the absence of those things that bring us real joy or play or release, the needle spikes into that intolerable place we know as overwhelm.

It’s something I find often with my clients (and, ahem, myself). Those things that seem extraneous often reveal themselves to be the golden thread that’s actually holding it all together.  

So, as summer turns to fall, I wonder, what’s your hobby? I’m ready to commit to some new ones.

Maybe I’ll take up macrame.

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